Philly producer Brian McTear's Bitter, Bitter solo project is having a much deserved moment in the sun.
When beloved Philly producer Brian McTear debuted his most recent musical project, some may have expected the sort of distracting tricks gleaned from years behind soundboards. Instead, last year's eponymous Bitter, Bitter Weeks album was all acoustic tearjerkers stripped down to McTear's raspy voice and simple strum.
"I think that I even thought that, as a producer, I was supposed to do all that kind of shit," says McTear, taking a breather at his Miner Street/ Cyclesound studio in Manayunk. "Actually, I've felt that way about every band I've been in. So for at least five of the last eight years, I was just spinning my wheels."
With two bands--Marinernine and the Weather--and countless production credits under his belt, this was the first time McTear stepped into the spotlight alone. It happened almost by accident, after he'd played a solo acoustic show at a friend's behest and then listened to a recording of it. Suddenly songs that had been knocking around in his head for more than a decade were finding new life.
"It's not the songs' fault. It was just my paranoid, super self-conscious producer side," he says. "As soon as I actually heard it, it seemed right."
Even McTear's optimistic songs seem stung with melancholy. But then, optimism is a rare commodity on Bitter, Bitter Weeks and the new Revenge (both released on the Princeton, N.J., label My Pal God). If the first album's "The Best Days of My Life" and "You Paralyze My Heart" can be haunting, the second's title track alone stops you in your tracks.
"Revenge" is so mightily raw that it became one of the defining contributions to www. protest-records.com, an online label for antiwar music co-founded by Thurston Moore. Penned shortly after 9/11, the song was inspired by an old friend's father, who died about a month before. "And you'll never know insecurities quite like we do now," McTear sings, before calling out America as "a country once callous in victory/ now ferocious in defeat."
"It sort of had to do with misplaced revenge and all these feelings, like people [wanting] to be angry. And it had very specifically to do with how the war changed people's perception of that," explains McTear. "There's been such a taboo on speaking politically or thinking politically in music. It's such a bullshit taboo that people have literally allowed their ability to express themselves politically to completely expire."
When he sings, "I'm just so sick of this goddamned war" on "The End-Lights," though, he's focusing on his close friend Sara Weaver's battle with leukemia. Likewise, the first album's standout "Tn." is not some random romanticizing of Memphis and Nashville but his memory of first hearing the news of Weaver's diagnosis. Leader of the band Swisher, Weaver sang backup on McTear's "Water in the Basement" shortly before passing away in 2002.
"They are all very real," McTear says of his lyrics. "They're a lot less abstract than most people's songs. I guess in my music all I have is the lyrics. It's not like there's instruments galore. I feel like you could ask me about any song and I could probably give you the background on it in pretty good detail."
Over the years McTear has worked with some of our city's brightest bands, from the Capitol Years and the Bigger Lovers to Mazarin and Matt Pond PA. He recently started a project called the Novenas around the songs of his artist girlfriend, Amy Morrissey. She manages the studio, created the artwork for both Bitter, Bitter Weeks albums and wrote Revenge's closing "The Greatest Extremes."
For something completely different, McTear and Morrissey are working on the score to Lance Weiler's psychological thriller Head Trauma, a follow-up to the Philly filmmaker's The Last Broadcast. Beginning by sampling sounds of old windows and door hinges in the abandoned Scranton houses where the film is being shot, McTear says they've begun to "get completely away from anything that resembles instrumental music."
He's planning a short tour in the fall, and he'd soon like to cover a bunch of his friends' songs for a live record. For starters, Revenge features a version of the Lucys' "Song for John" recorded live in Texas.
So will McTear be able to keep up with his production work while following his muse with Bitter, Bitter Weeks? He hopes so--possibly with the help of some outside engineers. Besides, he says his two loves are mutually beneficial.
"Last year was the busiest year I've had as a producer, and I think it was largely because my record got out there, and people heard about the studio and what we do here," he says. "With this record, hopefully, I'll be able to just go, do as much playing as I can, and then come back and work in the studio for a few months before doing the next record. And try to make them always build each other up."
Bitter, Bitter Weeks CD release show: Fri., July 23, 8pm. $10. With Mazarin, Espers + Scout Niblett. The Parlor, 1170 S. Broad St.